This week's five Republican Presidential primaries, all won by Mitt Romney, clearly seal the deal for him to win the nomination, but raise a fresh set of questions. With both Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum expected to officially suspend their campaigns next week, what should they ask for? Should they openly and publicly make certain demands, possibly even making their support conditional on Romney acceding to those demands — or should they make their demands privately , while publicly making fairly standard statements of support?
Virtually all observers of Presidential politics agree that Romney must win the support of conservatives in order to have a good chance of defeating President Obama in November. However, I would argue that thinking of conservatives in quantitative terms misses the point. It is not merely the size of the committed conservative base that Romney must capture, it is also their intensity. That's what made 2010 such a transformative year. It was the intensity of the tea party fiscal conservatives more than just their number that won the day for Republicans and allowed them to produce an historic takeover of the House of Representatives. It has always been the intensity of pro-life and pro-family social conservatives that have made them such a formidable force for nearly forty years. And it was the intensity of their support that brought Newt Gingrich back from political death and Rick Santorum tantalizingly close to upsetting the Romney strategy. Had he won Iowa on the initial count of caucus-goers, instead of two weeks later emerging as the victor, and had he won Ohio and Michigan instead of losing them by razor-thin margins, Rick Santorum could well have knocked the Romney train off its tracks. Even the Romney inner circle will concede that Santorum, Gingrich, Cain and Paul all generated a quality of intensity among their supporters that Romney simply could not match.
How can Romney win this intensity of support from those who may otherwise conclude that they have no choice but to support him given the Obama alternative, but who just cannot get excited about Mitt? Is there a single move that he could make that would win them over? No, intensity of support is earned over time, not purchased in a single transaction. It can also be generated relatively quickly through stirring rhetoric, as Herman Cain so amply demonstrated, but that's not part of Romney's skill set, and efforts to remake him into a Reaganesque or Churchillian orator would surely strike genuine conservatives as forced and fake.
Can Romney earn this support through making a series of policy statements and signing a series of pledges that will commit him to conservative positions on life, family, judges, taxes, immigration, balancing the budget and maintaining a strong military? Probably not.
So what's left? I argue that there's really only one way that Romney can earn the intensity of conservative support that could well be the deciding factor in this election, and that is through a series of personnel moves. During the Reagan administration, a refrain sounded by many movement conservatives in and out of the campaign and the White House like Morton Blackwell, Ken Cribb and Richard Viguerie was "personnel is policy." They meant that bringing the right people on board was in fact the way to advance policy goals, not merely announcing policy commitments and positions.
The most politically significant personnel decision that Romney will make is his selection of a Vice Presidential running mate. Looking back to 2008, the one moment of intensity that the otherwise moribund McCain campaign generated was the selection of Sarah Palin as his running mate. It actually propelled him into the lead, albeit briefly. The analytical calculators in Romney's brain trust and within his own brain are apt to make this decision on the basis of quantitative support and various kinds of "balance" that a given VP candidate might bring to the ticket. If they look for geographic balance, gender balance, racial balance and the like, they'll be on the wrong track.
They should instead look at the selection process form the qualitative standpoint of intensity. How much intensity will the VP candidate bring? Then the same analysis should be applied to a dozen more appointments, from senior advisors to potential cabinet officers. Only by making a series of personnel choices designed to generate sincere intensity rather than clever balance is the Romney campaign likely to win the support that can win this race, a race which truly deserves the description as the most important Presidential campaign of our lifetimes.